After the Vietnamese War, many of the refugees bound for France landed in Paris. A minority spread out to other French cities like Toulouse, Lyon and Marseille, the latter being a ville refuge (refuge city) due to its bustling port.
The small community in Marseille used to be concentrated near Joliette, before its building boom. But now they’re scattered across the city, taking their cuisine with them. No matter, for we know exactly where to go whenever we’ve got a hankering for Vietnamese: We join the line of people waiting for a bowl of pho outside Nguyen-Hoang.
In the shadow of the giant Hotel de Dieu and just up from the Vieux Port, this tiny restaurant is helmed by Hanh Hoang, a woman who never seems to stop smiling. The sexagenarian’s lunch-only spot (Nguyen is her maiden name) was born from her passion for cooking as well as her simple desire to please others.
With her teenage kids no longer needing her full-time, Hanh was eager to return to the workforce, having done a range of jobs from translating for doctors in Indonesia to being a seamstress at the textile company owned by the family of local politician Martine Vassal, president of the Metropole d’Aix-Marseille and mayoral candidate for the 2020 elections. Though she had never worked in a restaurant business, it felt natural for her to open one – like cooking for her family on a larger scale.
“We want people to feel at ease here, like they’re at home with their mom and dad,” explains Valerie, Hanh’s daughter, who helps out with social media from the Netherlands. She continues: “In Vietnamese culture, food is extremely important – it is meant to be shared and it is a transmission of pleasure.” The Hoangs uphold this tradition, spending their weekends “peeling vegetables, going to the market, rolling nems and cooking rice” rather than non food-related activities.
You can taste this culinary zest in every dish. Like blistered báhn xèo shrimp crepe and classic bò bún: rice noodles topped with carrots, crispy onions, chopped peanuts, nems and grilled meat. Daily specials include one of our 2019 Best Bites, bun rieu, fresh crab and tomato soup apt for Marseille’s seaside locale. In cold weather, steaming bowls of pho are at practically every table, their rich bone broth the “best cure for a cold,” raves Hanh’s son Jean.
“In Vietnamese culture, food is extremely important – it is meant to be shared and it is a transmission of pleasure.”
Jean – who has inherited his mother’s wide smile – works here full time, taking orders, serving, bussing and helping mom cook in the afternoon once they close for the day. As is traditional in Asian families, he had spent his teenage years helping her out, but the 20-something had planned on a career outside of the restaurant. Yet, during an internship that followed his accounting studies, Jean found he missed the “human connection” of engaging with the loyal clientele.
Plus Nguyen-Hoang had grown since its opening in September 2001. At first, the customers were so sparse that Hanh fretted over bills each month. Word of mouth increased the eatery’s appeal; business really began to boom during Marseille’s reign as the European Capital of Culture in 2013. Rave reviews in Le Fooding, the hipster Michelin, and other guidebooks as well as a mention in the NY Times have ensured the tables are always full with both tourists and locals.
As has Instagram, which the siblings manage together, sprinkling photos of their cheerful mom with mouth-watering close-ups. Jean explains that more than food porn, these snaps allow Chinese and Korean customers to order the dishes that most resemble their own cuisine – the modern version of a picture menu.
In spite of Nguyen-Hoang’s growth, little has changed. They still don’t take credit cards or reservations. Many diners are return customers, some since day one. The décor is sparse, save the golden Buddhist altar at the cash register and a framed front page of l’OM’s famed, and infamous, Coupe d’Europe victory in 1993.
Owning a restaurant takes courage. Hanh has that in spades, having escaped her homeland by boat with her young son, then living in Indonesian refugee camps before reuniting with her husband in France. Yet, rather than be bitter by the harrowing journey, she is incredibly thankful for surviving an era where many lost lives or lost touch with loved ones. This infuses her with an infectious joy that she in turn shares with her customers, whom she treats like family.
Like when we ordered the bánh rán for dessert. We used to bite into the sesame-seed coated, fried mung bean balls like an apple, not realizing there was a more traditional way to eat them. When Hanh delivered ours, she took our napkin, folded it into a triangle, placed the ball inside, and squished it into a hockey puck. And, then handed it to us with a smile. Just like a mother would do.
This article was originally published on January 24, 2020.
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